Are today’s HR practices really living out the ideologies of the human relations approach?
Although it sounds like a cliche, there is truth to the adage that an organization’s most important asset is its people. If you accept this premise, then it should be readily apparent why human resources (HR) departments came to be and remain necessary. The modern version serves a variety of functions that together are designed to ensure the viability of a vital asset or resource, i.e. the workers (hence the title “human resources”). This role and the attitudes that defined it are hardly consistent with the philosophical intent of the original human resources approach.
The main purpose of HR today could be loosely characterized as “tending the flock” of workers: administering their benefits, determining compensation, defining job descriptions, recruiting, hiring, managing layoffs, evaluating job performance, mediating disputes, providing professional development, and more.
Some of these functions are consistent with the principle of classical HR theory that holds that the prosperity of the organization depends in large part on its ability to enable what Maslow called “self-actualization” of its employees (Eisenberg, Goodall, & Trethewey, 2014, p. 82). For example, HR departments administer professional development programs and training, and help manage each employee’s advancement up through the ranks. In that regard, the HR department fulfills the ideal of helping workers evolve to their fullest potential, by facilitating growth and otherwise bringing the organization’s resources to bear on their behalf.
But these roles are small and lower priority in comparison with other concerns for the organization, such as payroll and benefits management. Human resource departments today seem to be primarily in the business of recruitment and retention of workers. Promising self-actualization has become a means to these two ends, rather than a goal in and of itself.
Maslow theorized that the effort to achieve self-actualization inherently serves the organization by aligning its goals with those of its employees (Eisenberg et al., 2014, p. 82). Likert’s principle of supportive relationships places a high value on employee engagement and “participative management” within the organization (p. 85). Of course, the realization of both ideals is often undermined by politics, power, privilege and other factors in organizational cultures. For example, practical reality in the workplace (if not society at large) holds that although everyone may be considered equal, some are “more equal than others.” In other words, lower level workers may have a harder time becoming self-actualized than managers and other personnel viewed as more talented or valuable to the organization.
The human resources approach places a high priority on employee wellbeing and engagement, essentially promising that if management put the needs of the worker at the forefront in most if not all decisions, the organization will prosper. But most organizations today treat employees less as their most important asset worthy of that consideration, and more like a commodity. The evidence is writ large in business news feeds every day. When a company is in financial trouble, layoffs are the most likely first step management takes in the attempt to improve profitability. Senior executives rarely put the needs of employees first or engage them in finding solutions to problems (never mind accepting a pay cut themselves) before taking steps that directly affect the workers’ livelihoods such as cutting benefits, closing plants or divesting divisions. Those don’t sound like behaviors that are consistent with the theories of Maslow, McGregor or Likert.
Unfortunately, contemporary HR practices largely reflect the mentality of workers as being expendable, which is far removed from human resources ideology. Rather than strongly advocating for workers and their active and vital involvement in organizational affairs, the HR function is often little more than maintaining the herd and doing management’s bidding.
Is it an appropriate role of an organization to overtly help each employee self-actualize, or “be all they can be?” Further, is it appropriate for an organization to tie its prospects to the worker’s ability or desire to self-actualize?
Eisenberg, E.M., Goodall, H.L., Jr., & Trethewey, A. (2014). Organizational Communication: Balancing Creativity and Constraint (7th ed.). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. (ISBN: 978-1-4576-0192-7).